China’s Leftover Women
In April 2016, a video published by the Japanese cosmetic brand SK-II went viral on the Chinese internet and subsequently appeared in the news in other countries. The video is about the so-called “leftover women” (剩女), which are women aged 27 or older who have not married yet. This is the video (in Chinese with English subtitles).
I have always hated the term “leftover woman”, and with me, all young women with a brain inside their heads in China, I guess. It is just so disrespectful and degrading. But the thing is that this term has been widely used in recent years, almost elevated to the category of “national problem”. As you surely know, because of the one child policy and the traditional preference for having sons instead of daughters, China currently has a huge gender imbalance. There are many more men than women. And it is a problem when women choose not to get married. Because single women by choice means even more single men. And single men (not by choice, but because they cannot find a wife) means social unrest. Maybe even rebellions! So who are those women to think they are free to choose if they want to marry or not? They’re not! They have to fulfil their duties to their parents and to society!
Leftover women is used to refer to single women older than 27. I remember one day in Beijing, I was in the street with a friend waiting for the bus. Two middle aged men started chatting with us. Where are you from? How old are you? 25? Are you married? No? Why not? Yes, in China it is relatively normal that someone who doesn’t know you at all expresses concern because you are 25 and you are not married. But if you reach the dreaded age (30) and you are still single, then it’s the end of the world. People think you have some problem that prevents men from wanting to marry you. (And many Chinese people are convinced that it is almost impossible to have babies after age 30. And a woman without a baby is just not right).
Why do women (but also men) receive a lot of pressure to get married and have offspring in China? There are many reasons. Family is a very important pillar of Confucianism. Your failures and successes in life are determined by what your ancestors did and what your descendants will do. Not giving grandsons to your parents is a big disrespect, because the family saga cannot continue. There are also economic reasons. Pensions are very low in China unless you retire from a post in the government or in a very good company. Many people don’t have any kind of pension at all. So many elders depend totally on their sons and daughters for sustenance. And there’s also spiritual reasons: if you don’t have children, who is going to make offerings in your tomb and your ancestors tombs when you leave this world?
Let’s comment on the video a bit. One of the first sentences, with the background of the little girls’ pictures is: 把自己嫁出去. You have to get married. In Chinese, the verb used for “to get married” is different depending if you are talking about a man or about a woman. The verb for women uses the complement 出, which means “go out”. For a woman, marrying means leaving her family and joining her husband’s family.
Traditionally, sons lived with their parents and the son’s wife was in many cases little else than a servant in her mother-in-law’s house. The Chinese ideal of happiness was to have four generations living under the same roof. Therefore, if you basically lost your daughter when she got married, daughters were of little value. You had to invest money on them while they grew up but they would not take care of you when you grew old.
One of the women in the video says a sentence that is too scary:
Not only that she is incomplete, but, as I said before, that she must have something wrong!
Another woman has to listen to her mother telling the camera in front of her: “My daughter is a leftover because she is not too pretty”. Well, thanks, mum! Another girl says she is sorry and starts crying and asking her parents for forgiveness. There are many couples in China who got married to stop their parents from pressuring them. I’ve had colleagues confess to me that they didn’t really want to have a kid at 23, but they didn’t have much of a choice. But the parents just wouldn’t leave them in peace.
The divorce rate has also been steadily rising since 2003. In Beijing, almost 40% of all marriages end up in divorce. I think it’s not surprising. During high school and college, kids are told not to date because they should focus on their studies. After they graduate, the parents are suddenly in a great hurry to see them married.
There’s this humorous video explaining some differences between Western couples and Chinese couples: the Chinese man proposes to the Chinese woman 6 months after they first met and the woman says: “Finally! I thought you were never going to ask!”. Most couples get married without having ever lived together. And when problems arise, they don’t know how to cope with them.
There is a new term that has also become popular lately in China: 闪婚闪离 flash wedding, flash divorce. A few months ago I read that some cities in China had changed the divorce regulations. It used to be very simple and fast, and only required both parties expressing their agreement. Now the divorce office only accepts something like 25 couples a day, so if you are late you have to wait (and maybe decide to give your marriage another chance).
The end of the video is very beautiful… and completely fake. Just by seeing a picture of their daughters in the marriage market, the parents suddenly accept their daughters way of life? It’s kind of hard to believe, they must have been nagging her for over 10 years and they are not going to change their mind in 5 minutes. Even if the daughter wrote an essay explaining her reasons. The parents just have this idea ingrained in their minds, that their daughter has to get married. And, of course, she should have a baby, because what’s the meaning of life but having a grandson to spoil!
There’s also been backlash at this video in China. I read a very critical article in WeChat that basically said the video was too fake, we have no idea if these women are independent and strong or not, because the only thing they make in the video is cry. The article also said that the real independent, strong and single women of China would never accept appearing in a video like this.
Let’s also see the other side of the story. The women in the video mention several times that if they found the right men, they would get married. And who’s the right man?
These women live in Shanghai, are educated and probably have good salaries. I’d think that they would not accept a man who earned less than them. Do you remember my post about the price of getting married in China? Things are also not easy for men. Perhaps they are not pressured at such a young age, but they are expected to have a considerable amount of money if they want to get married, especially in cities where property prices are soaring. Many women would not even consider marrying a man that does not own an apartment.
But, anyway, if a woman wants to marry a man with money, who are we to criticise her? Every person marries for a reason, be it love, financial stability, or others.
This piece was originally published on the blog Marta Lives in China